Mother who was accused of human trafficking by Southwest files discrimination lawsuit

A white mother who was accused of human trafficking by a Southwest Airlines employee in 2021 has filed a federal lawsuit against the company for “intentionally” discriminating against her and her biracial daughter, according to the complaint.

Mary MacCarthy had boarded a Southwest flight to Denver, Colorado, from San Jose, California, in October 2021 with her daughter, who was 10 years old at the time. But upon their arrival in Denver, MacCarthy, and her daughter were confronted by armed police and a Southwest staff member for suspected child trafficking.

In the lawsuit filed Thursday in the District Court of Colorado, MacCarthy is accusing Southwest of racial discrimination. She is also alleging that Southwest employees had reported her to law enforcement “based on a racist assumption” about a biracial family, the complaint said.

MacCarthy is seeking a jury trial, attorney fees, and costs, in addition to compensatory damages and economic damages that will be established at trial, according to the complaint.

David Lane, the attorney representing MacCarthy, said the lawsuit is designed to “bring some” accountability to the company and to have the airline re-examine its policies and training.

“In using racial profiling to cause the Denver police to stop innocent travelers, Southwest Airlines has attempted to address the serious crime of sex trafficking through use of a stereotypical, easy formula,” Lane said in a statement to USA TODAY.

“Just as the police are constitutionally not permitted to stop-and-frisk young men of color based upon their race, corporate America is similarly not permitted to resort to such profiling in using law enforcement to stop and question racially diverse families simply based upon their divergent races, which is what Southwest did,” Lane added.

Southwest declined to comment due to the pending litigation. But the company said in 2021 that it was conducting an internal review of the incident and that its employees undergo robust training on human trafficking.

Denver police given ‘racially charged information,’ lawsuit alleges

MacCarthy and her daughter were traveling to attend the funeral of MacCarthy’s brother, who had suddenly died the day before. After arriving in Denver, the pair was surrounded by Denver Police Department officers and a member of Southwest’s staff who began to question them.

A video from the incident showed the Southwest employee and an officer speaking to MacCarthy and her daughter about their behavior that looked suspicious.

“The officers began questioning Ms. MacCarthy and made it clear that they were given the racially charged information that Ms. MacCarthy’s daughter was possibly being trafficked by her simply because Ms. MacCarthy is white and her daughter is Black,” the lawsuit alleges.

MacCarthy’s daughter broke down in tears while the two were questioned and the incident remains “extremely traumatic” for the young girl, according to the complaint.

“To this day, whenever the incident is mentioned, Plaintiff M.M. goes silent and does not speak about it,” the lawsuit said.

A Southwest flight attendant had reported MacCarthy to police because she was “suspicious” about the pair. She told police the two were the last to board the flight and they did not speak during the flight.

The lawsuit added that the flight attendant had reported MacCarthy to the police without any conversation or contact with her.

“Unbeknownst to Ms. MacCarthy, while they were in the air, a Southwest employee called the Denver Police Department to report Ms. MacCarthy for suspected child trafficking for no reason other than the different color of her daughter’s skin from her own,” the complaint alleges.

Lawsuit alleges similar incident

The lawsuit also alleges that the incident involving MacCarthy was not the first case where Southwest employees racially profiled families and reported them to law enforcement.

In January 2021, the lawsuit said Southwest employees pulled a white father, who was with his Black daughter, off a plane for questioning. The father and his daughter were traveling back home after visiting his grandmother, who was dying of pancreatic cancer.

According to the lawsuit, the father sent a complaint to Southwest after the incident but the company “did not take steps to correct the racist assumptions its employees make” about biracial families traveling together.

“Southwest again claimed that the fact that a white parent was traveling with a Black child was evidence, in and of itself, of human trafficking,” the lawsuit alleges.

Contributing: Keira Wingate, USA TODAY

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Southwest sued for ‘racial profiling’ after accusing mom of trafficking biracial child

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